Okinawan prodigy returns to directing with ‘Girl of the Sea’


Special To The Japan Times

The once-arduous process of becoming a movie director in Japan — involving university film studies and years of assistant-director serfdom — has been drastically simplified. Technically, you can now shoot a movie on your smartphone and edit it on your laptop, with your name in the credits after “Director.”

But to truly earn the title, someone still has to believe your work is worth presenting, be it an indie distributor or festival programmer. A “world premiere” in your parent’s living room doesn’t count. And pardon me for being old school, but a premiere on YouTube doesn’t either.

By that standard, Ryugo Nakamura is the real directing deal, not to mention a cinematic prodigy: Born in Okinawa in 1996, he debuted as a director in 2010 with the locally set feature “The Catcher on the Shore” (“Yagi no Boken”), which opened in theaters nationwide to critical acclaim..

Girl of the Sea (Ningyo ni Aeru Hi)
Run Time 93 mins

Now 19, Nakamura has made his second feature, “Girl of the Sea,” (“Ningyo ni Aeru Hi”), another film set in his native Okinawa. In its ambition and angle of approach it reminded me of the first Okinawan film I reviewed for this newspaper, Go Takamine’s “Untamagiru” (1989), which embraced the island’s mythology and examined its history under U.S. rule after World War II. But whereas Takamine’s film was an exercise in magical realism — the title hero’s voluptuous lover metamorphoses into a pig — Nakamura’s is more realistic on the surface, though with similar mythic underpinnings. And as with Takamine’s film, I had to wonder if a non-Okinawan director could have made it. My conclusion: Probably not. The reasons go beyond the film’s Okinawan setting, which includes the lovelier, un-touristy parts of the island and the all-Okinawan cast, including nationally known singer-songwriter Cocco.

Unlike outsiders who tend to focus on the folksy or newsy aspects of the island chain — charming sanshin players or stout-hearted U.S. base opponents (both usually well over 60) — Nakamura films young Okinawans who are just becoming aware of various local beliefs and issues, and not always sure which side to take. He presents the reality of their lives without ideological filters.

Ryota Sensei (Shingo Chinen), a young high school teacher, visits the home of absent student Yusuke (Kaira Kimura), taking along two classmates, the earnest Hiroto (Yudai Taira) and reluctant Yume (Kanan Gima). In his room, Yusuke has papered the walls with slogans opposing the planned relocation of a U.S. military base from Ginowan, his hometown, to northern Henoko. Base construction, he believes, poses a threat to the gentle dugong, sea creatures that are rarely seen but loom large in the Okinawan imagination — Yusuke’s included.

Meanwhile, Ryota drives two slacker pals —a freelance photographer (Tomoji Yamashiro) and journalist (Kenta Nakaza) — up north for a travel story they are doing about the dugong. But while they are exploring at their destination, someone daubs pink paint all over Ryota’s car. What’s going on here?

The answer centers on Yume, who comes to believe she is the key to not only Yusuke’s rescue, but also the vexing problem of the base’s relocation and the dugongs’ elusiveness. Why her? A mysterious woman (Cocco) she encounters by the shore tells her the ancient local custom of virgin sacrifice still survives and still has power over the real world.

New Age mumbo-jumbo? Not quite. In Nakamura’s telling of this story, which ranges in tone from the comically droll to chillingly uncanny, we get a sense of age-old forces — call them “myths” if you will — that live on in the land. Yume and her friends are barely aware of them; outsiders are oblivious. But despite the technical stumbles of the young director and the stiffness of the mostly inexperienced cast, the film has a sure understanding of what those forces are — and why they finally make Yume a true girl of the sea.